Duì niú tán qín / 对牛弹琴


Welcome to our new Curiosities of Chinese section. This is where we look at Chinese idioms, sayings and expressions and try to explain their meaning and composition. This is not an attempt to teach Chinese but just a fun look at some of the fascinating parts of this rich language.
The first in the series is one of my favourite idioms.


Have you ever wondered that sometimes you are talking to, or explaining things to, people who just aren’t on the same intellectual level as you? Or ever wondered why the person you are talking to is so stubborn that whatever you say to them will never change their minds, no matter how right you might be?

The Chinese have a perfect idiom to describe such a situation. 对牛弹琴 duì niú tán qín.
This literally means “playing the lute to a cow”. I really can’t sum up that frustration any better than  this expression.

Picture taken from 100 Common Chinese Idioms and St Phrases by Sinolingua
Picture taken from 100 Common Chinese Idioms and Set Phrases by Sinolingua


means to or towards.


is a cow.


means to play a stringed instrument


is a general name for a stringed instrument but often refers to a traditional Chinese harp like instrument or lute.

Author: Adam

My name is Adam. I have a degree in Chinese History from SOAS and a masters in International Politics focused on China from the same university. I have travelled around China 9 times and since 2000 I have travelled every year for two months. I guess I kind of like the place!

2 thoughts on “Duì niú tán qín / 对牛弹琴”

  1. Buenísimo Adam!!

    en España decimos “echar margaritas a los cerdos”, pero creo que se utiliza más cuando estás haciendo algo bonito para alguien y no lo aprecian…

    aunque si tocas música para una vaca, probablemente tampoco lo aprecie…

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